An Answered Prayer
Just type the word "prayer" into an internet search engine as I did the other day and you'll find almost a hundred million different articles, sites, books, and periodicals on the topic. Discussions about prayer are as ubiquitous as the praying football player in the end zone after a touchdown. Every major world religion has some form of prayer, and in some of the earliest words to the church Christians are exhorted to pray "without ceasing."
Photo by Ben May.
And yet if we're honest, prayer can be a frequent source of confusion and deep mystery. Confusion comes not only with questions concerning what to pray and how to pray, but also in questioning whether or not prayers make a difference or are being heard at all. Phillip Yancey's book, which asks one such question in the title, attempts to address many of these questions about prayer. Why does God seem silent so much of the time to our prayers? Why does God seem to answer prayers affirmatively for some and not for others? And when all we seem to receive in response to our prayers is "no," how are we to understand both prayer's efficacy and the God who loves us?(1)
If these questions aren't difficult enough, Jesus's own bold statements about prayer make us all the more confused. The Gospel of Matthew seems to record some matter-of-fact statements about prayer. After all, Jesus proclaimed, "I say to you, ask, and it shall be given to you; seek and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and the one who knocks, it shall be opened." Likewise, Jesus promises that like our earthly fathers, God longs to give us what is good in response to the asking, seeking, and knocking of prayer.(2)
Yet Luke's Gospel narrative makes explicit what Matthew's Gospel keeps implicit about the gifts given in response to prayer. Jesus tells his disciples, "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?(3) According to Jesus, the goal of all prayer is the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and in the world. The Holy Spirit is the ultimate "good gift" that God gives in response to our asking, seeking, and knocking.
So, then, Jesus describes prayer in terms of connection and affiliation, a linking of our lives by the Son with the Father who gives the gift of the Spirit. The more this connection grows and develops, the more one desires it. Hence, God promises to give us more of the Holy Spirit-in and through all the circumstances of life-as the deep answer and the good gift in response to prayer.
Further, Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as the comforter, and the one who comes alongside us.(4) This is the same Spirit the apostle Paul suggests "intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words," and "intercedes for the saints according to the will of God."(5) Therefore, when difficulties come, when our prayers seemingly go unanswered, there is the unfailing assurance that we are not alone. The Father longs to come near to us as tangibly as the human Son of God has come into the world and as assuredly as the comforting presence of God's Spirit who comes alongside us.
Craig Barnes, former pastor of the National Presbyterian Church, adds:
"Sometimes life gets overwhelming, and we realize we could use a little help. So we pray for our health to get better, for our marriage to work out, for success in our work that has taken a turn for the worse. There is nothing wrong in praying for these things, but they are not what our salvation is about. Don't expect Jesus to save us by teaching us to depend on the things we are afraid of losing! He loves us too much to let our health, marriage, or work become the savior of our lives. He will abandon every crusade that searches for salvation from anything or anyone other than God. So he delays, he watches as we race down dead-end streets, he lets our mission du jour crash and burn. To receive Jesus as Savior means recognizing him as our only help. Not our only help for getting what we want. But our only true help."(6)
God's promise to be present with us through the power of the Holy Spirit suggests that God's presence with us is the deepest answer to prayer. It is God's "yes" even if God answers our specific requests with "no." Ultimately, God desires to bring comfort, not from dependence on the things of this world, but in God's presence with us and alongside us through the Spirit.
Through the power and presence of the Spirit, God longs to be the very answer to our prayers. Ask, and the Holy Spirit will be given to you. Seek, and you will find the Holy Spirit with you. Knock, and the door of God's kingdom will be opened to you. For how much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit, to those who ask?
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Philip Yancey, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
(2) Matthew 7:7-11.
(3) Luke 11:11-13.
(4) John 14:16, 26).
(5) Romans 8:26b-27.
(6) M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 124-125.